By NANCY SCHWERIN
Robert Baker grew up surrounded by religion. The basis for his strong Catholic upbringing started before he was born. His mother grew up in a rural town where church was central in her life. She continued to carry her belief throughout her life depositing on her family an ever-lasting faith.
During childhood summers and at family get-togethers, Bob spent time with his uncle, Precious Blood Father Clement Alt. He discussed the priesthood with his religious relatives at times, which included his great uncle, Father Benjamin Alt, also a Precious Blood priest.
As a young boy, “Bob was a very affable character with a great integrity. He was brilliant and loved music,” said Father Clement Alt, whom Bishop Baker marks as an influence on his vocation call.
At St. Wendelin grade school, the family’s home parish, Bob’s influences grew beyond his relatives as he came to know Fathers Cleo Schmenk and Robert Donnelly, two young priests, active in the parish.
“They were happy, committed, and proud that they were a part of something that was above us all,” said Bishop Baker.
The spark was set to flame in Bob’s youthful years with his family and in church life.
As he neared the time to start high school, Father Schmenk invited Bob to visit the Pontifical College Josephinum, 50 miles south of his hometown of Fostoria, Ohio.
“The young man was very conscientious and active, was a good kid all around and related well to everyone,” said Father Schmenk. “His family had a nice religious attitude and was devout.”
Little did he know that the talents he saw in him as a young man were only the beginning. Father Schmenk didn’t anticipate that he would go on to blossom into an accomplished scholar and thrive in his vocation call.
This period of his life is deeply ingrained in Bishop Baker’s mind. “Father Schmenk was very important. He took time to specifically invite me,” he said. “Priests did that then. They recognized a pivotal human element and called you forth to respond to God’s call.”
During these years that the bishop described as a high point for vocations in the past century, it was not uncommon for young boys to enter the minor seminary for high school.
Bob had another obstacle before he was accepted at Josephinum. He developed a bone disease that affects growing children. It caused him great pain in his knees, and he was restricted for two years from playing sports and from kneeling. Because he couldn’t kneel the young boy did not fear that he couldn’t play pick up games with his friends, but rather that the seminary wouldn’t accept him because he couldn’t kneel.
His fears were naught for he was accepted and avoided the school’s wooden kneelers for at least a few years, but the determined seminarian would have gladly knelt on the hard wood with his classmates. When the pain began to subside, he used a kneeling pad, which he says brought him ‘closer’ to his peers, who would inch nearer to get their own knees on a corner of the pad.
The first day of seminary Bob met Jerry Chmiel, who would be a classmate for 12 years and go on to become a priest of the Diocese of Toledo. During their years together Father Chmiel recognized the makings of a priest.
“He related well to all kinds of people — young, old, different nationalities and races. He was very into ecumenism,” said Father Chmiel.
The last four years the pair was in school together they shared classes with seminarians of other religions. Father Chmiel said Bob was always involved in these efforts of ecumenism in a time when the Second Vatican Council was novel.
“He didn’t put on airs and was willing to listen and observe and find good in every person he came in contact with,” said the priest.
As a seminarian who is trying to discern and learn about his religion, being in the seminary for the duration of Vatican II was really interesting yet was also a difficult time for Bishop Baker.
“Your vocation is tested and nurtured in the seminary. You try to get a good grasp of the priesthood,” he said.
There were many demands and sacrifices to be made while at Josephinum. The school, partly due to its pontifical status, set high standards academically and formationally. Seminarians were taught, foremost, aestheticism — to live and love genuinely — which helped to create a balance with reality.
“Even while he was in the seminary we (Fathers Benjamin and Clement Alt) always looked up to him. I saw great possibilities for him,” said Father Clement Alt.
In his senior year and into his first year of theology, Bob became more involved, along with his fellow classmates, in outside programs. He taught freshman and sophomore religion in CCD. While teaching he was often invited to the students’ homes for lunch where he met their families. “It was the best teaching experience in my whole life, because I knew the families,” said Bishop Baker.
In junior year, Bob had to choose what diocese he would serve. He said he almost chose Atlanta, before a friend got him interested in St. Augustine, Fla. He attributes his decision to the ‘lure of the south.’
“It was a growing part of the country and seemed an exciting place to minister,” said the bishop.
During his summers at Josephinum, Bob took a few courses at the local high school, coached at a local parish, and was a camp director.
“The summers were our time to get involved with people,” said Bishop Baker. One summer he was assigned to rebuild a church in Florida, and another he spent sanding floors at a convent.
“Any project that came up, mainly having to do with the ministry of the Church, he was 100 percent into it,” said Father Chmiel.
After 12 years of discerning, Bob was ordained on March 21, 1970.
“In the initial stages of vocation it’s a desire, an attraction that’s both human and divine working together. It is both a call from God and the human response. God invites us, but does not cajole or force us.
“I felt really unworthy of the priesthood (in the beginning), then I began to see that no one is really worthy of the priesthood.”
His first Mass on March 22, 1970, was an interesting liturgy. It was the first day the Mass went entirely from Latin to English.
“In the priesthood, I’ve come to know my place as a priest and now as a bishop,” said the prelate. “As bishop, I need to maintain a happy stance, be joyous in my position.”
Bishop Baker wants to be, and is, the face of hope and love to encourage priests and religious and lay leaders to be happy where they are.
He plans to encourage vocations and hopes to create a balance between aestheticism and materialism.
“The big struggle for young Americans today is material possessions and making life-long commitments,” said Bishop Baker, who foresees the ever-present nemesis of change and welcomes it, but also has seen what works what aspects need to be held onto to make change possible.
“We need stable family life and stable, happy priests,” said the bishop, who plans to work on both fronts.
In referring to Tom Brokaw’s description of his father’s age group in his novel The Greatest Generation, Bishop Baker said we should live so “people may talk about us as the greatest generation.”